The dream started in 1975 when I declared, “When I retire, I’m going to sail around the world.” In 2019 the dream began to become a reality.
Against all odds, during years of layoffs, in 1979 I started a career as a pilot. In summers for 20 years, I sailed in British Columbia waters and spent my winters thinking about what kind of boat I’d like to buy that would be capable of crossing oceans. In 1994, I started the search in earnest.
After almost 40 years with Air Canada, I did indeed retire. Within a year, we finished construction of a semi-custom aluminum Boréal 47 in Tréguier, France, on the north Brittany coast. The Boréal company was new in the yacht building business, but their boats won “Boat of the year” awards for several years. Our boat, Beyond the Blue, was launched in February 2019.
Cruising in Europe
In early May 2019, my wife, Scarlett, and I moved aboard and began the learning curve of not only a new, relatively complex expedition sailboat, but also tidal currents. We come from the west coast of British Columbia, and as such, we thought we knew about tides and currents, but in northern France, the tides can reach 10 meters and there are places the currents can run up to 9.5 knots! Attention to detail in planning is essential.
After a few training sails, we left in early June for a delightful sail and visit to the Channel Islands, northeast of Tréguier and south of Bournemouth, England. It was our first experience with “sills.” Because of the huge tidal range, many marinas build walls or sills at the entrance that keep the marina filled with water as the ebb drains away. It was quite something to wait for high tide to cross the sill, trusting that we had calculated the time correctly to enter the marina. We spent a week motoring around Jersey, Sark and Guernsey due to lack of winds, and returned to Tréguier for the first engine service and a few minor adjustments to the boat as a new boat often needs.
A week later, with an additional deck hand, we finally departed and motored to the mouth of the Jaudy River to anchor overnight in order to be in position to catch the tides and currents westward first thing in the morning. We thought we would take advantage of our swing keel and beach our boat to check the prop zinc and the bottom. We carefully navigated into a very shallow area; the charts did not show anything of concern, so we dropped the anchor, only to be accosted minutes later by two French fisherman rapidly approaching in a dinghy, gesticulating and yelling over the wind to move. It seems we had dropped our anchor in the middle of an uncharted oyster farm. Oops. Quickly raising the anchor, in a rapidly falling tide, we motored across the bay dropping the anchor once again, this time between two uncharted oyster farms.
It became apparent that our depth sounder was not calibrated correctly. We had 3 separate readouts and each one gave a different calculation. We took a lead line and confirmed our suspicions that, yes indeed, the depth sounder was inaccurate, so we returned to the Tréguier Marina and had Boréal’s electronics technician re-calibrate all three depth sounders. With an accurate depth sounder and an adjusted radar, we set off on a gorgeous beam reach around the west coast of France; first stopping at Roscoff on the north coast of Brittany, a delightful resort town with a great marina and fabulous restaurants. The following day we sailed out around the westernmost part of Brittany, passing by Ushant and spending the night in Camaret-sur-Mer. From that location we did an analysis of the weather for the next week to ensure our crossing of the Bay of Biscay would be uneventful.
Bay of Biscay
After enduring two months of unseasonable weather in France, our weather window looked perfect. Setting out early on a broad reach, we were delighted as pods of dolphins escorted us south across the Bay. The sail was fabulous – a broad and beam reach in nice steady breezes and moderate seas, made what could be a treacherous crossing a non-event. My wife, whose mantra had been, “I’m not sailing across the ocean with you,” enjoyed the passage, not knowing (me intentionally not saying) the dangers of the Biscay. Landfall found us in Camariñas, Spain, another delightful village with very friendly people who served the best dessert I think I have ever eaten!
Portugal Coast Challenges
Unfortunately, due to immigration restrictions in the Schengen area of Europe, we were on a mission to get into the Mediterranean and back to France, where we had a one year visa, as soon as possible. Because of that ever-present reality, during our passage south along the coast of Portugal, we stopped only in Porto and Lagos.
Three things stand out in our memories of the sail down the coast of Portugal. Every night dozens upon dozens of fish boats come off-shore to ply their trade. Of course, at night we couldn’t see their nets. Furthermore, they do not maintain a course and often turn off their AIS. This added a level of navigational stress that, at times, was almost tangible. Complicating navigation even more, these same fishermen would leave very large beer keg-sized floats attached to their nets and traps. Although easy to see in the daytime, we could not see them at night because they are unmarked. This proved interesting in that in the middle of one night, while motor-sailing at 7.5 knots, we hit one of these floats directly on the bow. The noise was like an explosion as our aluminum hull hit an aluminum keg! Fortunately, no damage was done, and once we were assured we were free of the lines, we set off again. Perhaps our line cutters installed on the prop shaft did their work? Hard to say, but we miraculously did not get entangled. Later, during Scarlet’s watch, we sailed into a lightening storm of unprecedented splendour… and stress.
After a stop in both Porto and Lagos, both with beautiful marinas and lovely towns, our hired crew member departed and another boarded. From Lagos we were off again to Cadiz, Spain, then Gibraltar. The new crew member, an RYA off-shore sailing instructor, was fabulous… absolutely fabulous. He taught my wife so much in 10 days that her confidence soared! He made suggestions to me that were sensible and very instructive. We learned so much in such a short time. However, we didn’t make it to France. While in Gibraltar, we calculated that we only had seven days to get to the south of France. Our hired instructor had to leave. That meant just the two of us would have to do the passage of close to 1000 miles. Although we probably could have made it, it would have been non-stop sailing. If there were a delay, we would have been hooped. Rather than adding that stress, we decided to leave Beyond the Blue in the Alcaidesa Marina, right next to Gibraltar (literally less than 3 km) for our mandatory 90-day exit. So we went home.
Choice Point – Onward to the Canaries
During our sojourn back home, we had to make a decision. Do we return and go into the Med in November, then head to France for the winter, or do we let go of that dream and cross the Atlantic? We decided, after much deliberation, to cross the Atlantic. With the Bay of Biscay having been crossed, it was an easy “sell” to Scarlet, who repeatedly stated, “I’m not crossing the ocean with you,” to sail down to the Canary Islands. She agreed, knowing that we would be relatively close to land the whole way and so, with her smiling, we set off in early November for Lanzarote, with the addition of the same crew member who had sailed with us from Brittany to Portugal; they had agreed to cross the Atlantic with us.
The six-day voyage to Lanzarote was lovely but marred by what appeared to be a failed alternator. Oddly, the alternator was producing power, but the power was not being fed into the battery bank. While we were in Alcaidesa, Volvo representatives completed a recall warranty item on our engine, replacing the MDI (marine diesel interface). Although we checked the systems prior to departure, during our sail south we just could not charge our batteries properly. Even though we have both solar and hydro power, as luck would have it, the skies were cloudy and light winds kept us from attaining the speeds necessary for the hydro-generator to produce power. Needless to say, we were a little concerned that we would lose all power, but managed to arrive into Lanzarote late at night on the 6th day.
It was very difficult to get the Volvo representative in Lanzarote to admit they may have erred in Alcaidesa, and to take responsibility. In order to get him to trouble-shoot our problem, we finally had a conference call with Boréal and the French Volvo engineer who designed the system. Fortunately, they were able to explain to the Lanzarote Volvo representative what the issue was. He entered the engine room, and within minutes the problem was resolved. Humorously and a little frustratingly, when we asked him what he did, he replied, “nothing”.
Nonetheless, now we were ready for the Atlantic. And miraculously (although, admittedly, planned and crafted on my part), she whose mantra was, “I’m not crossing the ocean with you,” now thought that this adventure was too cool to pass up. She was on-board for the adventure of a lifetime!
Crossing the Atlantic
Heading southwest out of Lanzarote, we cleared the Canary Islands somewhat disappointed that the electrical problem ate up all our planned visiting time in the Canaries. Nonetheless, with great anticipation, we set sail. With the forecast winds, I thought that a double-reefed main and a full Genoa would be a great idea for our first night, and indeed, outside of reefing the Genoa, we never changed sails again all the way across the Atlantic. Moderate winds carried us down toward Cape Verde, where we turned right a bit too soon and started tracking toward Antigua. Sort of. I actually believe the turn slowed us down and we had to motor-sail more than if we had continued south… but that is conjecture in hindsight.
The sail, mostly a broad reach with the Genoa poled out was, at times, in pretty rough conditions, causing the boat to yaw around the keel as we crested each swell and then surfed down the backside. Having a retractable keel however, I decided to experiment and lifted the keel. The yawing stopped and the ride improved dramatically. And she who previously claimed she wouldn’t sail across the ocean with me enjoyed the passage immensely. There were times when I heard her giggling (I kid you not) as she pointed up at 15 – 20 foot swells off our stern saying “Ooooo, look at the size of that one” as we surfed down the swell, hitting peaks of 15 knots but surfing more between 9 and 13. Needless to say, Beyond the Blue performed incredibly well. A Cadillac ride.
The only boat issue we struggled with was not technically part of the boat, but rather a piece of third-party equipment: the Watt & Sea hydro-generator. To get it to work, we eventually discovered that we needed to continually reset the controller. This required us to unplug and re-plug the unit approximately every 20 minutes. We did this, grumbling, all the way across the Atlantic! Although that may sound easy, the plug was on the stern and the process required the person on watch to hang over the stern upside down, unscrew the plug, unplug it and reinsert, then screw it back on – a procedure that was somewhat daunting at times on the high seas.
Sunrise as we passed English Harbour, Antigua, 18 days after our departure, was spectacular. The sense of accomplishment in our first ever ocean crossing was euphoric, while at the same time humbling. The journey across was marked by having an unseasonable number of squalls roll by almost every single day and night – not one or two, but almost one an hour for most of passage! We had only three squall-free days, near the end of the passage, when we finally got into the trade winds; nonetheless the journey was massively enjoyable.
The Caribbean Sea
Our crew left, and two days later our daughter arrived. We entered Antigua in Jolly Harbour, and although we desperately wanted to go sailing, once again we were experiencing a very peculiar wind pattern. Winds were howling out of the north at 30-40 knots with peak gusts at 50. We were safe in a marina and local anchorage, but it wasn’t until our daughter’s visiting time was almost over that we could actually do some day sails. Soon after our daughter departed, we were joined by another friend and, once we had more favourable winds, we began our journey north and west.
Although we had already sailed some 4000 miles on our new boat, we really hadn’t “sailed” her. We put the sails up and for most of the journey we rode a sleigh not needing to touch anything but reef the Genoa. Now, we were sailing: north, to an almost uninhabited part of Barbuda; then west-northwest to St Barts, Sint Maarten, Saint Martin, St Thomas, US Virgin Islands; and then Fajardo, Puerto Rico where our friend left us and, for the first time since we left France, it was just my wife and I.
We launched for what turned out to be a 5-day motor-sail due to fluky winds, to Matthew Town, Bahamas. We worked 2-hour shifts at night and had a fabulous, comfortable cruise.
What a blast the Bahamas were. After a few days in remote Matthew Town, we dropped anchor off Clarence Town and toured. I so looked forward to swimming in the crystal clear waters of the Bahamas and did swim a bit … until I saw them. Sharks. Not just nurse sharks, but bull sharks and hammer heads. Thereafter, I swam in the pool.
Our overnight passage from Matthew Town to Clarence Town had an interesting twist to it. In the late afternoon after we left Matthew Town, a freighter from Haiti showed up on our AIS, dead on our stern. As the freighter slowly crept up on us, I began to get concerned. I turned 20 degrees to the right, he turned 20 degrees to the right. I turned back on course, he turned back on our course. After a bit I decided to turn 40 degrees to the left. So did he. Now somewhat alarmed, I pulled out our Sat phone and was prepared to call the emergency number to the US Coast Guard. While these concerns were building, at the same time, I did find it odd that if they had ill intent, I suspect they would have turned off their AIS, but they hadn’t. They came within a half-mile, absolutely dead astern, before they veered off east. Whew. I thought it extremely unprofessional and could only assume they thought it humorous.
From Clarence Town, we had a delightful sail up to George Town where we stayed for a week and were joined by friends. Unfortunately again, the winds picked up to 25 knots, delaying any adventuring; as soon as we had better winds, we were off navigating the sparkling clear waters north, dropping anchor a few times along the way at remote protected locations until we arrived at Pig Beach and Staniel Cay. Our friends had flights booked out of Rock Sound airport on Eleuthera, so we motor-sailed though the cuts back into open water for a passage to Cape Eleuthera, again seemingly almost jinxed with the unseasonable winds right on our nose.
Cape Eleuthera Resort and Marina is a fabulous remote location where we stayed for a week, once again waiting for the winds to change. While we waited, we picked up my brother in Rock Sound and hung out until we got our weather window. Finally, we departed for a glorious beam reach up to Hatchet Bay. This was the first time my brother had sailed, and we gave him a wonderful sail in 15 feet of crystal clear water along the coast to Hatchet Bay. He flew down expecting to get two weeks of sailing. Unfortunately for him, the winds delayed our departure for a few days, and then once we reached Hatchet Bay, the entire adventure collapsed.
The Pandemic Intervenes
It was while we were anchored in Hatchet Bay that we heard about the borders closing due to the developing pandemic. President Trump had just shut down flights from Europe and I said, “Oooh, this doesn’t look good”. Overnight we had to radically change our plans, and against everyone’s advice and to our gross disappointment, we left Hatchet Bay directly for Fort Lauderdale, expecting the US boarder to shut.
Passing by the numerous anchorages we had planned on visiting, we arrived in Fort Lauderdale, having arranged moorage via satellite. We made the massive decision to ship our Boréal home to Vancouver on Seven Seas Yacht Transport. After two intense and hectic days of packing and boat preparation, we departed, landing in Canada the day before the border closed. Our boat arrived in Vancouver safely two months later.
Seems our circumnavigation is going to have to wait.
As I look back on our big adventure, one of the disappointments for us was the speed at which we travelled. It seemed as though we were always under pressure to move. In northern France we were delayed due to unusual weather patterns that produced uncommonly high winds, which had us rushing to get to the south of France, but brought us to the end of our legal limit of visitation of 90 days. Then atypical weather patterns affected us crossing the ocean, with winds out of the north rather than the expected trade winds. In the Caribbean, 40-knot winds bombarded Antigua from the north for weeks. During our journey through the northern chain of Caribbean islands, it seemed that we were always struggling against a contrary wind, rather than the hoped for trades! Likewise in the Bahamas…. everywhere we went we heard, “well, this is unusual for this time of year.” Then lastly, COVID raised its ugly head… well, it was an adventure.
It is very difficult to critique what was best; however, there were some incredible highlights. I’ll start with the biggest, and it was sailing and visiting the Brittany Coast of France. This for us is the number one cruising ground that we would LOVE to return to. The sailing is wonderful with generally moderate winds, the scenery is gorgeous and rugged, the navigation is challenging, while the villages, the food, drink and the people are incroyable!
Of course, what can be said about the actual crossing of the Atlantic Ocean? The passage is almost indescribable. The colours of the water, the stars at night, and the peace and rhythm of life at sea are a blessing to your soul. Throughout our journey, everywhere we went, and I mean everywhere, the people were friendly and we felt safe and welcomed. Although, as mentioned, we felt we rushed through the journey at times, as though some force was pulling us, in retrospect, our timing couldn’t have been better. Anything else and we would not have been able to return home during the global pandemic. We are so thankful and feel tremendously blessed.
With Beyond the Blue now home, we continue to dream – now the dream could take us down the Pacific coast to the Baja and who knows, the South Pacific?
At a slower pace perhaps…